When I was in Paris a couple of weeks ago I visited the Musée des Arts et Métiers, the museum of arts and trades. (Really one of the most interesting museums I've ever been to!) And while I was there I saw many things of interest to cooks, but especially this: The Marmite de Papin. Do you know what it is?
The very, very first pressure cooker!
Well, a model of the first pressure cooker, anyway. Denis Papin (1647-1712) was the first to translate new discoveries in physics and pressure to cooking. He created what he called a Digester: "A New Digester or Engine, for softaing bones, the description of its makes and use in cookery, voayages at see, confectionary, making of drinks, chemistry, and dying, etc."
He used this to cook meat with very little energy or liquid until it was soft and tender. His invention took a while to trickle into homes, though; the technology for building these early pressure cookers was not very good, so they would often explode or distintegrate along the seams.
Here's a little more about these very early pressure cookers:
(Image: Faith Durand)